5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography


There is a lot of hype about photography, it’s a booming hobby practiced by huge numbers of people around the world. With the prevalence of high quality images from our phones, and widely available, inexpensive dedicated cameras, it’s no wonder the art is so popular. But it isn’t all roses, and there are some uncomfortable things it’s best just to understand from the beginning.

Here are five truths about photography:


1. More gear won’t make you a better photographer

Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. It could be that the lens I’ve been using for night photography is too slow to get the detail I need, or the limitations of my current body are preventing me from blowing up the final shot to the size and detail required by a client. In such cases, I almost always have a specific image that I want to make, but can’t, due to my equipment.

More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it.

Some images require certain equipment. Without a big telephoto, this shot of the full moon over the Andes would have been impossible.

Some images require certain equipment. Without a big telephoto, this shot of the full moon over the Andes would have been impossible.

Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.

2. There is no “knack”


Some people take to photography quickly, others more slowly, but everyone has to learn. Photography is an art, not a gift.

A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.”

Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks.


Photography can be learned. With practice you can see the way lines and light interact to create a pleasing image. Or how those elements can become jumbled, resulting in a photo that just doesn’t work. With time and effort, you get better at recognizing the difference. It’s a process I work on every day.

So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.

3. You’ve got to be patient

I spent 20 minutes hand holding a big lens to make this image, as I waited for an albatross to turn in profile over the waves.

I spent 20 minutes hand holding a big lens to make this image, as I waited for an albatross to turn in profile over the waves.

Yeah, lots and lots of patience.

I’ve guided hundreds of photographers into wild locations to make images. Sometimes we’ve arrived at a site, and the light has been perfect, or the wildlife is waiting in the perfect place, as though they’d been staged there. But that is rarely the case. More often, we have to wait, and wait… and wait.

The pages of magazines are filled with spectacular images, timed to perfection. But those didn’t just happen. The images were made because the photographer knew how to be patient.

Few things are so hit and miss as photographing the aurora borealis. (There are lot of misses.)

Few things are so hit and miss as photographing the aurora borealis (there are lot of misses).

The best images all require time and effort.

This is a hard reality for many of my clients (students) to swallow. They just want the photo to be there, though it rarely is. To be honest, I’m not very good at patience. I like to move and explore, but it’s the times where I force myself to wait and sit silently, that I often walk away with something good.

4. There is nothing wrong with being an amateur


Being an amateur does not mean you are any less talented than a professional photographer. In fact, in many cases, I’d say it is just the opposite. You see, professionals spend much (most even) of their time doing the dirty work: invoicing, marketing, tip-tapping away at the computer, and much less time actually making and working with images. The images we professionals shoot are often those made for clients, not those we make for ourselves. Inherently, photos made for others are not as good as those we are passionate about. Amateurs can shoot whatever they please, and that means they are making photos that matter to them.

Skill and artistic sensibilities are not the sole territory of professionals. Some of the finest photographers I know do not make their living from it.


And equipment! Here is the biggest irony: pros often can’t afford the latest and best gear. With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.

So yeah, there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being an amateur.


5. Postprocessing is a tool, not a crutch

I’m not the first to say it, but I’m going to repeat it, there is no un-suck filter. If your image stinks when it goes into Photoshop or Lightroom, it’s going to stink when it comes out, no matter how much you crop it, add contrast, or saturate.

This image took a lot of work in post-processing, but it was a solid image going in. Nothing in Lightroom will make a bad image good.

This image took a lot of work in post-processing, but it was a solid image going in. Nothing in Lightroom will make a bad image good.

For the love of god, don’t over-process your images. What matters in an image is the way it speaks to the viewer, that the photo means something. Make your image meaningful, and you won’t ever have to rely on post-processing to be successful.

Sunset over the Noatak River, Gates of the Arctic National Park, AK USA.


In the end, what really matters about photography is not the final image, but the process of making it. So forget about the shiny new gear, practice the art, be patient, don’t get caught up in labels, and make your best image in the camera. Everything else is details.

Do you have anything else you’d add to this list? Please share in the comments below.

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and workshop leader based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. Dave offers multi-day summer and winter photography workshops in Alaska and abroad. He is currently accepting sign ups for affordable photo workshops in Alaska, Africa, and South America. Find out more HERE .

  • KC

    Another truth: People just see the final image, the “successful” image. Odds are it’s a compromise in our minds. It’s never as perfect as we’d like. They never see the rejects, the time we put into it, the endless decisions that lead to it.

    I’m not sure about the “knack” comment. I’ve run into a few photographers that are fundamentally clueless, but manage to take some fine images. They had other creative interests that transferred. I enjoy seeing that work. They often breaks aesthetic “rules”, but there’s something there. The images are clever.

    I’m a minimalist when it comes to gear. “More gear” tends to be distracting. This could drift into the debate over what “pro gear” is and an endless stream of clever cliches.

    If you have “big name, expensive, looks complicated” gear the perception and expectations change. There’s an odd perception that every press of the shutter button equals absolute image perfection. Maybe on a technical level, the aesthetics of an image are in your head. The gear is gear. All you really have are more options with more or higher level gear.

    The “post” comment is interesting. Yes, it’s a great thing to “get it right in the camera”. With all the technology it’s hard to get a technically wrong image. But “post” can drift into “cheesy/tacky filter” or surreal territory easily. That’s fine if that’s the intention. If the image only works because of “post” there may be a problem with the image.

  • Michael Clark

    At least 90% of what we do in the digital post-processing workflow has a counterpart in the darkroom. It just took a lot more time to do most of it in the darkroom.

    Sending film to an automat lab, where everything was preset and decided for you, was almost the equivalent of shooting in jpeg. But the work of those such as Adams, who did his darkroom work himself, or HCB, who farmed it out to others, went far beyond simply making a contact print or a simple, unaltered enlargement from the negative. Adams took perhaps his most well known image, ‘Moonrise: Hernandez, NM’ in 1941. The definitive prints of ‘Hernandez’ weren’t produced until the mid-1960s as Adams keep tinkering with printing it and finally resorted to chemically altering the sky to make it darker.

    Compositing has been going on since at least 1850 when Gustave Le Grey combined the sky from one glass plate and the sea, boats, and shore from a differently exposed glass plate to make prints of seascapes. Dodging, burning, color correcting, chemically altering one part of a negative, etc. all were techniques widely used by the masters.

  • Fielding Mellish

    An old, but still correct and funny.

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